Safety is certainly an issue in a chemistry department. It is fairly easy to protect oneself from direct contact with chemicals. Don’t touch them. Wear gloves. But some might nevertheless be hazardous without you noticing: through inhalation.
Fume hoods, ventilation, detectors of smelly and non-smelly hazards, are usually here to prevent any poisoning but the variety of toxic volatile substances and their respective threshold might be unknown.
In particular, detectors are specific only to a limited range of products and lack in specificity, making their accuracy controversial.
In the 60s and the 70s, there has been a growing awareness of the effect of air pollutants on plants. The number of scientific publications about this topic at this period of time denotes the sudden consideration. Now it is only well known that plants in you house will provide a cleaner air and a better health.
But it is more than that. Not only plants clean the air, but they also exhibit well-documented symptoms in presence of air pollutants, similar to those detected by electronic air monitoring devices such carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide.
But since they are living organisms, they are less specific and therefore will react to a broad range of pollutants. Also, given the high turnover in the small body of a plant, the effects are expected to be quite visible quickly, at very low thresholds.
Thus, why not keeping plants in the lab and evaluate their health to assess the air quality of the environment on a long-term basis? Plants will not replace current detectors that respond within a few seconds.
It is cheap, it is pleasant, it is reliable. The culture of unexposed specimen can prevent the possibility of adaptation. The diversity of species can provide enough individuals for broad range detection. One can even imagine genetically modifying a plant to make it weaker and more sensitive…
Of course, this will require care and knowledge – even though a plant will ostentatiously demonstrate its ill-being.
Ellis F. Darley (1960) Use of Plants for Air Pollution Monitoring, Journal of the
Air Pollution Control Association, 10:3, 198-199, DOI: 10.1080/00022470.1960.10467919